How to approach a potential PhD supervisor

I regularly receive emails from hopeful students wanting to do a PhD, and I frequently decline with similar feedback. Supervisors differ of course in what they look for, but I thought I’d blog these points in case it helps you decide whether a PhD is the right thing (whether or not with me!).

Demonstrate that you understand our work, and can position your interest in relation to this. If you’re seriously proposing to work on a project for 3-4 years of your life, show me how interesting you find it — so interesting that in fact, you’ve read some of the key literature, and specifically, our work.

  • Research groups are normally looking to build a research program in which each person’s work adds a new piece of the jigsaw to an emerging picture. Your PhD experience will also be massively enhanced when surrounded by colleagues interested in your work, and able to connect you to key ideas and people that will help you.

Attempt to propose a research question. This may well be over-ambitious, and in fact you’ll spend your first year (possibly longer) reviewing this, but a PhD is driven by an RQ, often broken down into 2-3 sub-questions. These will run as a “red thread” throughout the whole thesis: everything you do will be tied to these RQs. To help you do this…

What do you think your contribution will be?  In other words, indicate what you think answers to the RQs might look like. This is your first attempt to articulate your potential “contributions to knowledge” — which is what earn you a PhD.

Do you have any idea what a PhD thesis looks like? Before deciding you want to set sail, why not check out the different kinds of PhD I’ve supervised recently, and see what it is you’re promising to deliver? :-). [See also the SoLAR PhD Thesis Hub for more learning analytics PhDs]

Clarity of argument. English may not be your first language, but I’m looking for clarity in your thinking, even if the words are not perfect. However, your thinking will be judged by your writing, so good academic English will be important.

  • There are free resources online now that can help with your academic English, such as Academic Phrasebank.
  • I strongly recommend you take this one hour UTS Open taster, an interactive tutorial on how to write a research abstract.This explains the key building blocks in an archetypal abstract — basically: Why should we care about this topic? What don’t we understand yet? What are you going to do about it? If you make these moves in your proposal, it will have a sound structure. This also enables you to try out AcaWriter, one of the instant feedback tools CIC’s developed, on your own writing.

Apply in time to revise your proposal. Check the deadlines, and ideally, get in touch months ahead to start the conversation, because…

If your proposal has promise, I’ll give feedback. Take this feedback on board, or argue back if you disagree. I’m assessing your readiness to take criticism, as well as your readiness to take a stand.

Clever coding ≠ a PhD. When a technically proficient developer applies, they sometimes think quality = developing some extremely cool functionality. A PhD may well include exciting implementations as a proof of the concept, and as a way to evaluate the idea with stakeholders — but at least in my field, it’s the conceptual contributions advancing the field that count.

Recommended books. 3 books to consider, and note that the first two major on the “non-academic” dimensions of doing a PhD:

Leave a Reply

You can use these XHTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>